Herman Gref on His Way From a Teacher to Sberbank’s Top Manager

Gref - Sberbank

Herman Gref is known as a banker and reformer minister who laid the foundations for the country’s economic development. Since 2007, the top manager has served as chairman of the board of Sberbank. Thanks to his efforts, the once sluggish financial institution has become a modern technological company with an ecosystem of digital services.

Education

Herman Oskarovich Gref is a native of Kazakhstan. The top manager was born on 8 February 1964 in the small village of Panfilovo with a population of just over a thousand. After graduating from high school in 1981, he worked for a while at the local agricultural department, and then joined the army and served for 2 years (from 1982 to 1984) in the special units of the Interior Ministry troops. After his demobilization, Gref applied to Omsk State University, passed entrance exams, and was enrolled as a freshman.

In an interview, Gref recalls that during his law school studies he didn’t strive to be among excellent students, but in his third year he discovered that his achievement sheet had only excellent marks. Like many students at that time, he was a member of the Komsomol organization and was active in social work. A proactive approach to life and excellent academic achievements helped Gref enter his postgraduate studies at LSU in 1990 and stay on to teach at the university.

The graduate didn’t stay at his native university long and in 1991 moved to St. Petersburg, where Anatoly Sobchak, the then head of the economic law department, became his academic adviser. In the northern capital Gref engaged in political activities, was a member of the liberal party Leningrad People’s Front, and advocated for radical reforms in the country. He completed his postgraduate studies in 1993, but didn’t finish his thesis. The top manager received his PhD in economics only in 2011 at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

Career in the mayor’s office of St. Petersburg

Gref’s first position was a minor one – in 1991, the graduate student got the position as a legal advisor in the Property Management Committee of the Petrodvorets Administration. A year later, he was already working at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, first as head of a district agency of the Property Management Committee and in 1994 he became head of the committee. During this period, the head canalized all his energies to transform the city economy in decline.

In 1997, Gref already served as vice-governor and supervised key utilities reforms. With his participation the first stages of structural changes were carried out: management companies began to be awarded only tender-based contracts, an independent building assessment was carried out, and a register of urban property was compiled. At that time, Gref worked in close contact with Dmitry Medvedev, Anatoly Kudrin, and Dmitry Kozak, who would later take top positions in the RF Government.

Herman Gref

Activities as head of the Ministry of Economic Development

In 1998, a new stage in Gref’s biography came – the energetic reformer was offered the post of deputy head of the RF State Property Ministry. He moved to Moscow to begin transformations at the federal level. Over the next two years, the deputy minister laid the foundations of utilities management, which successfully exists to this day. The result of the reforms was the emergence of individual and collective meters, consumer rights to choose a management company, and the provision of services on a competitive basis.

After the establishment in 2000 of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Herman Gref was appointed its head. The minister became the author of the economic program for the next ten years, which he developed by order of President V. V. Putin. The key points of the strategy were the release of entrepreneurs from excessive tax and administrative burden, the support of investors, and the reduction of customs duties. With Gref’s participation, the process of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization was launched, which ended in 2011.

Now Gref calls working in the government the hardest period of his life. The top manager notes that the burden of responsibility in high positions is very difficult to bear, and ministers have only to dream of days off and vacations. The rigid schedule and overload resulted in the fact that after another change in the government in 2007 the head of the MEDT asked to be relieved of his post and give him the opportunity to go into business.

Sberbank’s reforms

The country’s leadership entrusted the former minister with a no less responsible position. Since 2007 and for the next 15 years, Herman Gref’s place of work was Sberbank. Under the management of the top manager, there was a financial institution where clients had to stand in line for hours, and the management didn’t even think about introducing modern service standards and was not going to change anything.

Herman Gref became a driving force in the transformation of the country’s oldest bank. Among the main qualities of the head, colleagues note his desire to be one step ahead of competitors. On the initiative of the top manager, the bank introduced new technologies using artificial intelligence, which reduced the time for making decisions on granting loans. There were no more lines at branches, and the vast majority of transactions are available online.

It took the top manager little more than 10 years to turn a classic bank into a technology company with a deployed ecosystem. In addition to financial services, Sber is now developing a number of areas, including:

  • E-commerce and delivery services
  • IoT devices and robotics
  • Online drugstore and telemedicine services
  • DomClick housing ecosystem
  • Biometrics
  • Educational projects.

In the coming years, the company is planning to pay maximum attention to the development of its ecosystem. Sberbank has managed to master all the current areas of the fintech industry, thinks Herman Gref. News in foreign industry media suggest that global technology companies, for which financial services are becoming just one of the areas of activity, are winning today. In the coming years, Sberbank’s main goals include becoming a leader in e-commerce, continuing the development of AI-enabled services, and investing in the gaming industry. The company pays special attention to the implementation of ESG principles.

Herman Gref’s personal life

The top manager has been in his second marriage since 2004. Gref’s wife, Yana Golovina, is a designer. The spouses founded Khoroshkola Lycee together, where education is based on experimental methods. Sberbank’s head often criticizes the education system and is convinced that curricula must take into account the individuality and talents of each kid. Gref’s kids and even grandkids studied at Khoroshkola.

Awards

  • 2010 – Knight of the Legion of Honor
  • 2014 – Order of Honor
  • 2014 – Order of Alexander Nevsky
  • 2019 – Order of Merit for the Fatherland, II class
  • 2021 – Order of the Star of Italy (Commander)

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.